Promising stroopwafels, science experiments and secret annexes, Amsterdam is top of my list for a family city break. Packing an overnight bag and a thirst for Dutch culture (read: cheese and pancakes) I brought my 12-year old daughter, Lola, along to put the fun, artsy, bicycle-mad city through its pre-teen paces.
By Tracey Davies
Famous for Old Masters, atmospheric canals, fragrant cafes and a (now rather kitsch) Red Light District, Amsterdam is one of Europe’s most popular city break destinations. While I’ve been a frequent visitor over the years, this is the first time I’ve seen the city through a child’s eyes. From disembarking the train, it takes us a record six minutes before we’re checking in at the DoubleTree by Hilton at Centraal Station. Ditching our bags, Lola and I skip straight towards the nearest canal and hop on a boat tour to get our bearings. As we glide around the Canal Ring, passing rows of wonky, gabled houses, Lola keep her eyes peeled for one in particular, Anne Frank Huis on Prinsengracht.
Ever since she learned about World War II at school, she’s been fascinated by the story of Anne Frank, the 13-year old Jewish girl who wrote a diary about life in hiding during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam. Anne Frank Huis is one of Amsterdam’s most popular attractions and tickets sell out weeks – sometimes months – in advance. My top tip is to book the introductory program for a couple of euros more – tickets are released two weeks in advance, but there are often some available last minute. The program includes a 30-minute précis and a Q&A session, then you can skip the lengthy queues and venture behind the famous bookcase to the secret annexe.
If you’re going to go the full Dutch, there’s only one way to see Amsterdam and that’s on two wheels. We hire a couple of Dutch bikes from the hotel and after an initial wobble, we’re able to navigate our way around the city like natives. After wheeling around the Canal District, we cross the IJ, the vast waterway which splits Amsterdam, over to the NEMO Science Museum where Lola spends an hour or two absorbed in its hundreds of scientific experiments, including a hands-on science lab where you can look at DNA. In true, open-minded and unusual Dutch fashion, there’s a teenage section (over 12s only) where you can ‘practice’ French kissing using large malleable tongue-like red gloves and learn fascinating sex facts, which, when pointed out, makes a pre-teen blush to her toes.
Despite visiting Amsterdam numerous times before, I’ve never quite made it into a museum (the Heineken Experience doesn’t count). Armed with our I Amsterdam cards, we hop on a tram from Centraal to Museumplein, where all the major museums are based.
After a quick selfie on the giant IAmsterdam sign, we nip into the Rijksmuseum to gaze at Rembrandt’s Nightwatch and Vermeer’s Milk Maid, before skipping over the tulip-strewn square to the Van Gogh Museum to wonder at Vincent’s famous Sunflowers. From Museumplein, it’s a 20-minute walk east to Albert Cuyp Market in the trendy De Pijp district, one of the biggest and most popular street markets in Holland. Although Lola is somewhat distracted by the scent of fresh stroopwafels, I note it’s a great place to potter where you can pick up anything from vintage clogs and wheels of Gouda to a fresh raw herring bap.
‘Upstairs’ at Pannenkoekenhuis: Over our weekend, I learn that Dutch cuisine is remarkably kid-friendly. From cones of hot, mayo-drenched fries to sugar-dusted pancakes the size of bin lids. For lunch, Lola drags me into ‘Upstairs’ at Pannenkoekenhuis, a wonky 16th-century Dutch townhouse, to sample Amsterdam’s finest pancakes. Lola chooses to go sweet with banana, honey and whipped cream, while I opt for a savoury one piled high with crispy bacon and cheese. Price: from €6.25 Pannenkoekenhuis.
La Perla: After visiting Anne Frank’s Huis, we criss-cross the canals over to the trendy Jordaan district where we find La Perla, a buzzy pizzeria on Tuinstraat. Popular with Amsterdam’s young, student-y crowd, the restaurant is split across a cobbled street and doles out authentic Neapolitan wood-fired pizza and local craft beers. Price: from €9.50.
The Original Stroopwafel Stand: If there’s anything that will tempt a stroppy child away from having a full-blown tantrum, then it’s a stroopwafel. These magnificent syrupy, waffle biscuits are a highlight of any trip to Holland. One of Amsterdam’s best examples is found at the Original Stroopwafel stand in Albert Cuyp Market in De Pijp, where owner Ruud and his son, Dennis knockout huge, warm waffle biscuits dripping with syrup.
When braving a city break with kids, whatever their age, choosing a centrally located hotel is the key to its success. A five-minute walk from Centraal Station, the DoubleTree by Hilton is by far the closest hotel to the Eurostar. But some seedy station hotel this is not.
Overlooking the River Ij, this modern pile has slick rooms with iMacs and free hot cookies, and a hip SkyLounge with a panoramic rooftop terrace on the top floor. Which is where we wave a sad farewell to our favourite city before hopping on the train home. Price: Rooms from £212 per person per night.
How to get there
Eurostar’s twice-daily route between London St Pancras and Amsterdam Centraal takes just three hours and 41 minutes and costs from £35 one-way. Currently, the return journey is by Thalys and Eurostar via Brussels Midi (from £51.50).
Amsterdam is a great place to bring the family. A flat, compact city, it’s easy to explore on foot, or do as the locals do and hop on a bike. It has stacks of kid-friendly food, dozens of cool museums, plus great shopping for teenagers.
Best time to go
Amsterdam is a year-round destination. The weather is similar to the UK, so expect cool, damp winters, with the odd chance of snow, and warm, largely dry summers. Spring is the prettiest time to visit, when the tulips are in season, but it’s just as attractive in autumn when the city parks and canals are a blaze of colour.
If you plan to tick off several of the major museums, it’s worth buying an IAmsterdam Card which allows free access to most, most public transport and a river cruise, plus various discounts across the city. Prices start from £52 (€59) for 24 hours.